“In most histories of the Uncivil Wars, the Battle of Three Hills is but a footnote – especially given its proximity to the much more contentious Battle of Marchford. But for us, back then? Marchford might have been the crucible that forged us, but Three Hills lit the furnace.”
-Extract from the personal memoirs of Lady Aisha Bishara
The laughter did not last long.
The line of men-at-arms fell into chaos at the sight of their leader’s death while the probable Page dragged the Prince’s corpse back out of range with a cry of dismay. It would be a while yet before their sergeants got them into anything close to marching order, but there were other things to worry about. There was a noise like the beat of a hundred drums as the cataphracts of the Silver Spears charged across the muddy plain, eighteen hundred pairs of hooves striking the ground as they devoured the distance separating them from the Fifteenth Legion. The sight of nine hundred mounted killers decked in silver plate from head to toe was enough to send a shiver down my spine, but I shook the feeling off. The mud was slowing them, though not as much as I’d hoped. A handful of horses slipped under the tricky footing and rolled over their riders, but it was a mere handful. Not anywhere enough to make a dent in the strength that charge will carry. The two battalions of four hundred and fifty settled into the rough shape of an arrow as they crossed the ground, headed straight for what they must have thought to be the weak points in my line: the sapper companies on my flanks.
“They’ll be in range soon,” Juniper grunted.
“Let’s hope the stakes will do their job,” I agreed quietly.
The first volley of crossbow fire from the goblins did little to hinder the charging horsemen. Not that I’d expected it to, at that range. A few wounded horses, but the other cavalrymen streamed smoothly around the downed mounts. Gods Below and Everburning, what manner of wicked things I wouldn’t do to have cavalry like that. By the time the second volley hit, though, they were well into killing range. The bolts popped through plate on horses and men alike as my legionnaires drew the first real blood of the battle. There wouldn’t be time for more than a handful of those, I admitted to myself with a grimace. Those silver-enamelled bastards were faster than anyone loading a warhorse with that much weight had a right to be. The third volley was the bloodiest yet, and the tip of both mounted battalions disintegrated under the focused fire from my crossbowmen.
“Mages?” I asked the Hellhound.
“Just after the fourth volley,” she replied. “We want the best impact.”
They cataphracts were fifty yards away from my men when they hit the field of stakes. The ones in front saw the sharp ends jutting from the ground but it was too late to turn back – the momentum from those behind them would carry them through whatever they did. I’d seen some striking things in my life, even before I’d decided to pack up my things and become a villain – there was nothing in Creation quite like a golden Laure sunrise when all the bells in the City of a Thousand Bells were ringing – but I’d never seen anything like those swarms of riders splashing against the stakes like a wave against stone. In a heartbeat they were stopped cold, a line of eviscerated horses and upended riders marking the work of my sappers. That was the moment the fourth volley hit, and if the third one had been bloody this one was sheer slaughter.
“Raise the pennant,” Juniper ordered.
A hundred balls of flame bloomed into existence a moment after the signal was raised, and in the wake of the volley our mages sent them raging into the ranks of the enemy. Juniper had argued to concentrate the mage lines on the flanks, while I’d been more inclined to spread them out, and the sight of the chaos they were sowing made me glad I’d taken her advice. Masego clucked his tongue, reluctantly approving.
“Not a bad effect, for such a mundane spell,” he conceded.
Being raised by Warlock had given Apprentice a rather elitist view of the kind of magic taught to legion mages. He’d told me once that the fireball spell that was the bread and butter of our mage lines was a “pedestrian construct even a trained monkey could learn”, which while probably true was missing the point entirely. Easiness to learn was the criteria for all the official spellwork taught to legionaries: the point of it wasn’t sheer firepower, it was to make sure all legion mages could cast the bare basics. During battle, generals could then concentrate those basic spells in a single point to overwhelm the enemy. The doctrine of the Legions of Terror was a thoroughly practical one – it took a lot less time and effort to train twenty legionaries to cast a fireball than to teach one mage to cast one with the same strength as those twenty combined. Mages with talent like Masego’s didn’t grow on trees.
In the distance below I could see the fire had been the tipping point for the cataphracts. In the last half-bell, they’d seen their leader die, a third of their number shot by my sappers and now they’d been stopped cold by the Fifteenth’s fortifications before being set on fire. They broke, and I felt my lips stretch into a grim smile as they fled back towards their men-at-arms. The first part of our battle plan had gone off without a hitch. Whether that was just the glimmer of hope before we got crushed or the beginning of our way to victory remained to be seen.
The officers on the other side had not spent their time idly: the rest of the Silver Spears was on the move already, the mass of men-at-arms slogging across the muddy field like a great snake made of glittering steel. They were… slower than I expected, and it took me a few moments to figure out why. The horsemen. When the cavalry had charged – and then retreated – they’d churned up the ground something fierce. As bad as the footing had been for the mounted men, it was twice as bad for the men-at-arms now. Pushing through knee-deep mud in heavy armour was exhausting work, I knew from personal experience. They’ll be dead on their feet by the time they hit our line.
Exhausted as they were, the men-at-arms still struck our centre like a battering ram. The formation of Hune’s kabili buckled under the impact but stabilized after a moment. As for Nauk’s… Well, the centre of his forces was made up of ogres. The moment the enemy vanguard made contact, the hammers came down and the first row of Silver Spears turned into chunky red paste. They kept charging into the meat grinder without flinching, though. The mercenaries were nowhere as disciplined as my own legionaries but I could not deny they were tenacious. I put aside the reluctant admiration I felt for the poor bastards: sooner or later the ogres would tire and the rest of Nauk’s soldiers were just regulars and heavies. As long as the enemy kept their focus here, though, we’d stay on top. Every one of their soldiers would have to climb over the corpses of the dead to take a swing at mine, and the sheer mass of their numbers was forcing their front line right into my legionaries’ blades. The throng kept pushing forward, stomping over any of their comrades that slipped in the mud – I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of them drowned in there, heads kept in the mire by their own allies.
Still, two routs in a row had been too much to hope for. Not that it mattered: the centre was a sideshow, ultimately. If Hune and Nauk broke the battle was over, sure, but the pivot of my plan had always been the flanks. Dug in as they were in the middle of the hills’ slope, all my commanders had to do was hold on while we took care of the rest. Juniper had kept a cohort of two hundred up the hill to serve as our reserve just in case there were any nasty surprises left, ready to plug any gaps in our defence if the worst came to pass.
“What in the Dark Gods?” she barked suddenly.
I followed her gaze and found exactly what she was talking about. Moving through the mass of men-at-arms like ghosts, a handful of enemy soldiers had come to the front of the melee. There couldn’t have been more than fifty of them: men and women in strange leathers with their heads shaved, all of them wielding long spears with barbed heads. They moved as a loose arrow and in a matter of moments they wedged themselves right into Nauk’s regulars, tearing through the front rank like it was wet parchment. Shit. Who the Hells are those guys? Nauk was losing too many legionaries way too quickly, and the counter-charges he ordered failed to dislodge the bastards. The newcomers weren’t wearing the same chain mail armour the rest of the men-at-arms, and there was just no way anyone using spears should be that good at killing. Spears were useful as a wall, to press back infantry or break cavalry charges, but these assholes were using them as single combat weapons flawlessly. Juniper looked as stumped as I was, and as usual Masego was pretty much useless when it came to anything that didn’t have to do with magic or poor social skills.
“Those are Helike Spear Saints,” Hakram said out of the blue.
Everyone turned to look at him with varying degrees of disbelief.
“They’re a monastic order from the Free Cities that dedicate their life to the spear,” he informed us.
Juniper spat on the ground, whether in disgust at our luck or to show her general opinion of everyone living south of the Waning Woods I couldn’t be sure.
“That’s all well and good,” she grunted, “but what are the fuckers doing here?”
“The House of Light has ties to the Helike royal family, remember? I guess the hero wasn’t full of it when he said he was a prince.”
Well, wasn’t that nice. Now I had to deal with a unit of shock troops intent on avenging their boss in the middle of a battle where I was already outnumbered badly. What next, was the godsdamned Wizard of the West gonna come out of the grave and set my people on fire?
“How do you even know that?” Masego demanded.
Hakram offered up a truly horrifying sheepish grin. One of these days I was going to have to tell him he actually looked scarier doing that than when he was trying to be scary.
“Figured we might end up fighting in the Free Cities at some point, so I’ve been looking up foreign units we should be careful around.”
And once again, it was made clear why Adjutant was my favourite out of our merry bunch. I really had lucked out, the day I’d been made lieutenant of his line back in the College. I looked back at where the Saints were still tearing through Nauk’s men with practiced efficiency. Time to pull out the first of my trump cards, then.
“Apprentice,” I said, “clean that mess up.”
The dark-skinned teenager offered me a lazy grin.
“Oh? Finally letting me off the leash, are we? Good, I was starting to get bored.”
He sauntered off down the hill, and knowing what I knew about the kind of magic he could pull off I felt safe in assuming the situation was now under control.
“You sure that’s going be enough, Squire? Could send in the reserves to be sure,” Juniper asked from my side.
“The only other mage I’ve seen pulling out magic on the same level as Masego is his father,” I replied, letting the words sink in.
My senior officers were all aware of who Masego’s father – well, one of them anyway – was: Warlock, the Sovereign of the Red Skies himself. If the stories they told about the man in the Wasteland were anything like the ones I’d been raised on, Juniper should understand exactly how dangerous that made Apprentice. With perfect timing thunder boomed and a streak of lightning struck across the noon sky, hitting right in the middle of the Saints. A dozen of them died instantly and twice as many were thrown away like rag dolls by the impact. Their formation wavered, and Nauk’s legionaries immediately turned up the pressure. Masego was already chanting his second spell, blue energy crackling around him in threads visible to the naked eye.
“So that’s why you keep him around,” Juniper mused, eyeing Apprentice with more respect than she ever had before.
Captain had been right, I noted with amusement: proficiency at violence really was the quickest way to get on an orc’s good side. Hakram cleared his throat from behind us.
“Flanks are seeing action.”
My gaze swivelled to the right side of the hills, where my goblins had started to fire on the approaching Silver Spears again. Most of the men-at-arms had been herded into the middle of the battlefield the way I’d intended them to be, but it looked like someone on the other side had kept their head on straight enough that the flanks were still going to have a fight on their hands. It was hard to tell how many of them there were slogging in – at least two hundred, maybe more? There was not even the shadow of a proper formation as they tried to hack their way through the stakes. The tribune in charge had his legionaries focus on the Silver Spears trying to make a path, but they’d brought up large shields to the front to cover themselves. A well-aimed salvo of fireballs put an end to that for a few moments, but before I could count thirty heartbeats they were back at it. I grimaced: the situation was not dire for now, but eventually our mages were going to run out of juice. A glance to the other flank convinced me that was where I should put my attention, though. There were about as many men-at-arms there pushing towards the goblins, but there was a recognizable silhouette at the head of the pack: the maybe-Page from earlier, carrying a banner as he led his soldiers straight into the stakes.
Unlike my officers, I’d never attended the tactics classes at the College. I’d had a very different education on the subject of war: every other day Black would sit down with me and we’d talk for a few hours. On some occasions we’d go over old battles and the ways they’d been won or lost, but most of the time the discussion was a little more abstract. In every battle there’s a fulcrum, he’d told me, the point that can swing it one way or another. Tactics were, generally speaking, better left to the generals: it was the place of those with Names to find that fulcrum and nudge it in the right direction. He hadn’t needed to spell out that “nudging” usually consisted of killing the right people in the right place at the right time. The Page raised the pennant he’d been carrying around since earlier and the men-at-arms behind him cheered. They ran straight into the stakes Pickler’s sappers had put up and I raised an eyebrow – were they going to hack those down by hand while being shot at the whole time?
At the moment they were losing soldiers with clockwork regularity as my crossbowmen placed their shots with practiced professionalism. They averaged a shot every fifteenth heartbeat, the official requirement for crossbowmen in the Legions of Terror, but I’d noted more than once that they had better accuracy than they should. Hakram had told me Pickler was picky about the kind of wood and rope we got issued, so she probably knew something I didn’t. The moment the Page reached the stakes was when it all started going downhill: the Named boy rammed the standard in the ground and there was a blinding flash of light. I blinked it away and grimaced at what I saw – a rough path had been pulverized through the stakes, the mud still smoking where the Name’s power had struck. Soldiers poured into the breach behind him as Page charged up the hill. And that’s my fulcrum right there.
“Adjutant,” I spoke calmly. “We’re reinforcing the left flank. Juniper, I’ll be taking in the reserve.”
One of my mages sent a ball of flame hurtling through the air towards the Page, but a man right behind him raised his hand and the magic flickered out of existence. So that’s the priest that’s been mucking up our scrying.
“I’ll take the Page,” I told Hakram. “Get rid of the priest before he can make more of a mess.”
“At your command,” he gravelled back.
Juniper was already barking up a storm in the background, readying the cohort for combat. She wouldn’t lead it personally of course – it was her job to stay up here in the place with the best vantage point and make tactical decisions as events unfolded. The two hundred legionaries moved in good order but I pulled ahead, too impatient to wait. Hakram kept up with us as well as he could, but he’d only come into his Name recently. He wasn’t as good at drawing on the power to add swiftness to his limbs. By the time I reached the goblins, Page and his men had reached their first ranks. The melee that ensued was sharply in the favour of the Silver Spears: goblins fought more viciously than any other of my soldiers, but none of them stood taller than a human’s chest. There were limits to how much nastiness could even out a struggle.
Sure-footed even in the mud, I rammed into the tip of their assault with my sword bare. The man in front of me was tanned and bearded, snarling as I came to him – his blade rose but he was no more than an amateur playing at war. My shield broke his nose and my arming sword cut his throat, leaving a corpse behind as I charged into the melee. The cohort behind me swept into the fight like a hammer blow, knocking the momentum out of the men-at-arms. It had been some time since I’d fought men without a Name, and never before had I taken the fight to them without my own power being hamstrung. The experience was… enlightening. I burrowed into their line like an arrow into flesh, too horrified to smile.
They were not enemies so much as silhouettes now, streaking in front of me almost too fast to follow as I scythed through them like wheat. A young boy tried to bring down a mace on my shield but lost his hand and his head with two flicks of the wrist, crimson raining on the mud as I stepped past his corpse. Stories spoke of villains and heroes as having the strength of a hundred men on the field, and now I understood the true terror of it: they could not stop me. They could not even slow me, and even when they tried to bury me in corpses they found I did not tire. This was not a fight so much as a massacre, and I felt bile rise in my throat. It was almost a relief when the enemy hero came to meet me, casually running his rapier through the eye of a goblin. Page, the call came through the enemy’s ranks. A prayer and a promise. Well, at least I wouldn’t have to ask for introductions. Now that I was close enough to see the boy’s face I wasn’t so sure he was, in fact, a boy. Maybe he just had really delicate bone structure? I suppose I could have asked, but now didn’t really seem like the time.
“You,” Page spoke and what did you know, that was definitely a woman’s voice, “you’re the one who ordered that filthy orc to shoot.”
I assumed she was referring to Nauk, which was being quite unfair to my commander. He bathed exactly as often as Legion regulations required it, so he wasn’t any filthier than the rest of my army.
“More like mimed it, really,” I replied.
Page’s rapier slid out of the goblin’s eye socket with a wet squelch.
“It was nothing more than cold-blooded murder,” she said, her tone halfway between anguished and furious. “He was a good man. A good man.”
“And now he’s a dead one,” I spoke flatly, eyeing the rapier’s point. “Way of the world, or so I’m told.”
She was barking up the wrong tree if she was trying to guilt-trip me about the Exiled Prince’s death. He’d been asking for a duel, and if you took all the glorified pomp out of that concept all that was left was the intent to kill. If you’re asking me to be sorry that I was smarter about killing him than he was about killing me, you’ll be waiting a long time.
“I should have known better than to expect contrition from a Praesi,” Page snarled.
“I’m actually from Callow,” I told her, raising an eyebrow.
“- but I promise you this, Squire,” she continued, ignoring my interjection, “you will be sorry by the time I’m done with you.”
I didn’t mind letting her trash talk longer than this, though she seemed like she might be done. The longer she talked, the more time Hakram had to take out the priest. The reserve cohort had plugged the gap in the stakes where the men-at-arms had been pouring through and from the corner of my eye I could see the tribune commanding the crossbowmen putting her lines back in order. That small look at the situation nearly cost me my life: in the fraction of a moment where I’d taken my eyes off of her, Page had moved. Months of sparring against Captain had endowed me with reflexes that bordered on supernatural, though: out of habit I took a half-step to the side, turning a strike that would have gone right through my eye into one that left a thin mark on my cheek. I guess the conversation’s over. Shame, we were finding so much common ground. The footing was tricky with all the mud but I widened my stance and brought up my shield, the tip of my sword rising to face my opponent.
I’d never faced anyone using a rapier before – it wasn’t a popular weapon this far up north – which put me at something of a disadvantage. And if the speed she’d just moved with was any indication, Page might actually be faster than me. That I can deal with. So were Black and Captain. I’d just have to stay defensive until I had a better grasp on the way she fought, which was the way I preferred doing things anyway. The other girl was lighter on her feet, unburdened by the weight of the plate I wore, and she slowly circled around me. The point of her rapier flickered a few inches away from my face when I pivoted to match her but I refused to rise to the bait. It was only when she’d done two thirds of a circle around that I realized what she was actually doing: she’d been making her way up the slope to grab the high ground, and I’d been so cautious I’d let her do it without a challenge.
Cursing under my breath I took a few careful steps in her direction, attention divided between her stance and the tip of her sword. I almost missed it when she moved. Her weight shifted a fraction towards her back foot and the instant afterwards she was trying to run her rapier in the soft flesh under my chin – I slapped away at the point with the side of my shield but it was already gone. She immediately took the opening, the rapier sliding into the elbow joint of my sword arm and scoring blood. Hissing, I stepped back and brought my shield up. So that was the way Page wanted to play me, then: feinting with killing blows I couldn’t afford to let go and then turning them into quick, debilitating hits to my amour’s weak points. She’s fought people in plate before, I decided. No one our age improvised that well on the spot: she’d already worked out her tactics for this.
Page met my eyes and smiled a cold, cold smile. Huh. I had a feeling I would have liked her, if she weren’t currently doing her level best to fillet me. She was good. Better than me, much as it pained me to admit it. I had barely a year of training under my belt, no matter how gruelling it had been, and there was too much of a gap in experience between us for me to able to beat her at this game. William had hammered in that point in Summerholm, crushing me even at my peak of power. That’s why you don’t play the game, you play the player. The kind of training she’d gone through wasn’t something commoners could afford. She must have studied under masters for years to get this good, learning all the ways to take out different opponents with that little needle of hers. Those pearly white teeth, that perfectly fitting armour, that immaculate haircut – you’re a noble’s kid, or at least a wealthy merchant’s. There was something about the way she moved that spoke of a perfectionist streak, and I happened to know how to deal with those.
I rushed her with all the grace of an ogre tearing through a pottery shop, nearly slipping in the mud when I stepped around the blow she flicked towards my eye. She tried to make distance but my Name was howling like an angry beast, thirsting for blood. The power rushed through my veins and I saw her next strike coming before she ever moved, bringing up my shield and letting her point score a thin scratch against the metal. I rammed it into her chest as she was halfway through taking a step back, feeling a savage grin tugging at my lips. At the last moment she managed to turn her stumble into a fluid spin and for the barest of moments we were back to back – I elbowed her, my plate-covered arm ramming into her back with a greatly satisfying noise. She was quicker than I to turn around but I could keep up now, and I’d claimed back the high ground. With a snarl she tried to ram her rapier through the side of my knee joint, but I kicked the point away. I moved forward again, undaunted: I couldn’t let her make space again, that was her game. Mine was to stick close where her speed wouldn’t mean as much and my arming sword would work best.
The edge of Page’s blade shone for a fraction of a moment, glinting like a lake under moonlight before it blurred into motion. I was ready for her this time. My Name was a dark thing, I realized more every day, but it was my darkness. I owned it, and I could feel it laugh in time with my every heartbeat. My sword slapped her own away with almost insulting ease. My shield savagely impacted with her face, the telltale crunch of a broken nose resonating up my arm. She flew back, blood flying, and I let go of the shield. Page landed on the ground and tried to get on her knee, rapier providentially still in hand, but my armoured boot landed on her chest and put an end to that. She dropped the rapier and in the blink of an eye slid a dagger I hadn’t even noticed into my knee joint – I let out a noise that was half-yell, half-snarl and fell on top of her. We struggled but I was heavier and this was my battleground. All those years she’d spent learning all her sword forms and footwork, I’d spent earning stripes of my own. Far before Black had ever taken me under his wing, I’d learned to fight in the damp darkness of the Pit. I had to drop my sword to push down the hand that held the dagger, but my other one was free and that was enough. I punched her in the jaw once, twice and teeth flew.
There was the glint of sunlight on metal and she produced another dagger out of nowhere, trying to slip it into the unprotected stretch after my gauntlet, but it was a shallow wound. I gritted my teeth and worked through the pain as she desperately tried to slide the dagger out of my flesh while I groped through the mud for my sword. She did and I bit down on a scream, but it was a moment too late – my fingers closed on the hilt of my sword and I brought it down right under her chin. There was a wet gurgle and she tried to breathe through it, but I knew a mortal wound when I saw one. With the last of her strength she tried for a final strike, but there was no strength left in her: it just glanced off my breastplate. I leaned forward as the last of light left her eyes, just close enough for a whisper.
“When you see your Prince on the other side,” I gasped, “tell him he should have worn his godsdamned helmet.”
I wrenched my sword free, and that was the end of her.